Abortion and Stem-Cell Research: Arguing from Continuity or Category?
After reading William James’ Pragmatism and Varieties of Religious Experience this year, I also dabbled in his humungous Principles of Psychology recently. Now in Chapter 3 of the Principles, he uses the term “Argument from Continuity,” which I found to be handy peg for a line of thinking that I’ve never had a name for.
Let me explain the Argument from Continuity by using the controversial issues of stem-cell research and abortion.
Some people argue that there is an unbroken continuity from the male sperm and female egg to the growing lump of cells after conception. After all, this lump of cells doesn’t much resemble a human baby yet. Sure, nine months later there would be a baby, but it is a gradual process from unfertilized cells to fertilized cells to fetus and unborn baby, born baby, child, and grown-up. There is no absolute, definite line between any of these stages.
Therefore, if we want to pass laws to protect human life, we have to be somewhat arbitrary. We might, for instance, draw a line at twelve weeks after conception. This arbitrary line is needed because we certainly do not want to prosecute a man for not saving the lives of all his sperm cells, and—so the Argument from Continuity goes—likewise we do not want to prosecute anyone for using fertilized human cells for medical purposes. But we do want to prosecute someone who rips out an eight-month old baby from the womb of its mother and kills it. It’s a gradual process from the lump of cells to the baby with no definite natural line, but we do have to draw a line somewhere.
So far, so good (or not good, depending where you stand on this issue). But what might we call the opposite of the Argument from Continuity? Perhaps the Argument from Category?
The Argument from Category would counter that at the moment of conception there is a category change of what we are dealing with. Before conception, we just have cells. After conception, we have fundamentally a human being. From then on, there is only a change in degree, not a change in kind. Therefore, if we want to have laws for the protection of human life at all, we have to include even those who are only just starting out on the human journey.
Within each category, there can be a lot of change, but none of the changes merit treating the object in question as something fundamentally different.
This latter argument is essentially Aristotelian, and, due to Aristotle’s great influence on Catholicism, probably has a lot to do with the Catholic Church’s stance on stem-cell research and abortion.
Proponents of the Argument from Continuity would of course criticize the Aristotelian notion of categories as something that imposes human concepts onto nature, even though nature really cannot be quite so neatly divided. For instance, our common conception of different animal “species” cannot be a hundred percent matched with what we actually find in nature. Ernst Mayr defined a species as a group of population that can successfully interbreed and cannot interbreed with other groups. This is true of many groups of animal populations, but it is not true of all. There are some groups we call species that can interbreed with other species and there are other groups that very much seem like a single species, except that that not all can interbreed within the group.
This is just one example how we tend to quickly form neat categories in our minds, even though nature is more complex than those categories. On the other hand, clearly nature is not completely chaotic or unvariable. It makes sense to see things in terms of categories, but not at the expense of becoming victims of our own categories.
What do you think? Is the supposed category change at the moment of conception an example of our becoming victims of our own categories, or is it a line given by nature that we should not trespass?